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  • The Chocolate Bar Interview 012: Olivier Fernandez

    The Chocolate Bar Interview 012: Olivier Fernandez

    For our latest interview we caught up with Olivier Fernendez, owner and chocolate maker at Gaston Chocolat, who we featured in our October subscription boxes. There are very few craft chocolate makers based in the Pacific Islands so we thought it would be interesting to learn more about what that's like, both as a lifestyle and in terms of the logistics. Be sure to have a read of this fascinating chocolate story... 

    gaston chocolat vanuatu artisan

    How did you end up living in Vanuatu and becoming a craft chocolate maker? 

    I first visited Vanuatu in 2006 [Olivier is originally from France] and met an incredible woman who is now my wife. I fell in love with her and her country. We’ve been here for over a decade and I enjoy every day with the same intensity. To me Vanuatu and Port-Vila are like Tortuga for Captain Sparrow, a place I feel attracted to and I’ve called home since the day I landed here.

    The chocolate making came from a passion for agro-development and entrepreneurship. After investing a few years working with the local cocoa growers we figured there was more to do to add value, and the processing of the beans into chocolate was a natural path. It triggered numerous trips overseas to learn and train properly in chocolate making and get our first bars made in Vanuatu. I enjoy it so much that it never feels like work to me but I have to pretend it is.

    What kind of size is Gaston Chocolat, both in terms of your premises and your team?

    We are small and growing, with a team of three full time and one part time and looking to add one more part time on sales. We have sold over 15,000 bars on the local market since October last year when we started our commercial operations. We work in a 100m2 workshop right in town, on the main street of Port Vila, the capital city of Vanuatu. We have a production capacity of about 5,000 bars per month and we are now looking to export.

    gaston chocolat artisan vanuatu

    Do you buy directly from the cacao farmers? If so, what is that relationship like? 

    We were working with the farmers before we started making chocolate. When you are in a country that grows cacao and you know how important the quality of beans is, you have to be in the field. We interact with sixty of them over seven locations in the western and northernmost islands of Vanuatu. At every location, we’ve dedicated time and resources to understand the constraints, and come up with tangible and simple solutions. We also assessed the impact of every decision. When you ask for sun-drying of the beans for example, it takes twice as much time than hot air and fire wood drying, which is commonly used for bulk grade cacao and smokes the beans. So, unless you are ready to pay twice the price for the beans, it is not sustainable.

    The science part of making beans is important and it has to be linked to the farmer’s needs and livelihood to be efficient, and to work out a fair and comprehensive pricing. After four harvest seasons we achieved constant good quality beans in volumes that could support our commercial needs. We’re out in the field at the beginning of each harvest season and we make the first fermentation together. We have a close relationship and it is essential to what we do. We chose to work with 100% local beans and want them to be of the best quality possible. The dominant genetics in the field are of the Amelonado-trinitario type, and we’ve done a lot of work on the fermentation process and post-harvest handling together.

    Are you seeing a lot of development in cacao and chocolate in Vanuatu? 

    It is hard to quantify. I see a lot of qualitative work that supports quality improvement but not necessarily volumes exported, which is usually the metrics of reference to measure a market. I have witnessed the emergence of a higher quality market to supply chocolate makers over the past 5 years, however the logistics aspect of growing cacao in a remote archipelago is a constraint that slows down the development and limits the tonnage.

    Ageing plantations and the lure of more lucrative crops or more profitable businesses have played against the cacao industry. I believe cocoa is making its way back at the forefront of the farmers’ and government’s interests, and they’re now eyeing the potential for a premium quality to export, but the road is long and there are no shortcuts. Success will come through training and infrastructure development. I believe in centralised fermentation centres and there is a need for high standard storage facilities to preserve the quality along the supply chain. Too often I see a lot of work done upstream to achieve higher quality that is lost by poor handling during transportation and storage.

    gaston chocolat artisan vanuatu

    What are some of the challenges you face with being based in Vanuatu?

    My freight costs and borrowing rate at the bank would make you jump to the roof and my power bills would nail it. More seriously, the logistics and the costs that come with moving commodities around the islands (and overseas) are challenging. The fact that we don’t access the same level of services and the remoteness is also a challenge, which we tackle by doing the extra mile of work needed to make it happen. You have to be hungry. That said, I believe every environment has its own challenges and despite those we face by being here, we are competitive with the international market and - in my opinion - the benefits of having direct access to the farmers and the beans and the beauty of this country and its culture outweighs those challenges. Vanuatu also teaches you patience or what we call “island time”. What’s not done today will be done tomorrow or maybe the day after.

    How does the growth in popularity of craft and fine chocolate affect the lives of cacao farmers in Vanuatu?

    It is a slow change. When I saw the bean-to-bar movement growing and met some well renowned chocolate makers along the road, I thought that it could change the face of the cocoa market, but some realities are far more complicated than it seems and that’s one of the main reasons why we are in the field as often as we can be. The logistics behind good beans are tremendous and preservation of the beans isn’t easy in tropical areas where they are grown, especially when the geographic nature of your country is an archipelago, with limited access to roads and a pricy shipping. The quality of the beans has improved significantly and there is a spot to take in the supply of exotic origin beans in the world market. 98% of the local production goes into cocoa butter mass production, exported overseas and bought at a lower price than top quality cocoa could be. This is where we are working to link buyers and chocolate makers with the right cocoa growers, to slowly develop the fine cacao market and get the cocoa growers additional revenue for beans that require a lot more attention and preparation work.  

    gaston chocolat vanuatu artisan

    Do the local people in Vanuatu eat a lot of chocolate? If so, is there a particular style that is most popular over there?
    Both cacao and chocolate were brought here from overseas so it’s not in the culture to eat chocolate or process cacao. Most of the time when you mention cacao people remember when they were kids and used to crack open the pods to enjoy the fresh fruity flesh that wraps the beans. Chocolate sells mainly in urban areas and in terms of chocolate style, the market relied on imports of candy bars for decades so pretty sweet and milky chocolate is popular. Since local chocolate is making its name we see an increasing interest for dark and local chocolate.
    We’re currently stocking your delicious Caramelised Nangae Nuts bar. What can you tell us about Nangae nuts? 
    Thanks for the compliment! Nangae is the name in Bislama, our main language in Vanuatu, but they are also known as Galip or Cannarium nuts in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere in the region. The shell is very hard but the nut is soft and wet inside. I used to enjoy them in my breakfast muesli and tried several recipes to enhance some flavours; roasting was the key. Blending the nuts with caramel allowed for butterscotch notes to develop. It’s actually a blonde sugar, not a proper caramel since we stop the cooking right at the time the sugar turns brown, to keep it light and avoid caramel taking over the nut flavour. They are supplied by a good friend who knows the archipelago like the back of his hand, and recently he took me out to one of his favourite harvesting areas in the south of Malekula Island. It was all good fun and we’ve fermented some cacao there too, while learning more of the local dialect - one in over a hundred spoken across the archipelago.

    malekula island vanuatu

    What are some of the best chocolate bars you’ve tasted recently? 

    The 70% dark single-origin Madagascar by Bahen & Co. I can taste its fruitiness and subtle floral notes by naming it, perfectly balanced and with the right creaminess. The 75% Hacienda el Rosario, Venezuela single-origin by Stephane Bonnat is bluffing, intense and malty, and the making is perfection; conching and fineness are mastered. The 70% Dak Lak, Vietnam single-origin by Marou, its honey notes from raw sugar are blending nice with the red berries and grape flavours of the beans. To finish on a local note, I met with Martyn O’dare in May, he’s a co-founder of Islands Cacao & Chocolate Ltd, and was on a bean sourcing trip in Vanuatu and brought me his Solomon Island 72% Guadalcanal single-origin, which I really enjoyed.

    What is your favourite thing about being a chocolate maker?

    To see the smile eating chocolate puts on everyone’s face. I believe it talks to the kids in us.

    olivier fernandez gaston chocolat 

    Thank you so much to Olivier for taking the time for this interview. Be sure to try some Gaston Chocolat if you'd like to experience beautiful chocolate with a pure expression of Vanuatu terroir.

  • The Chocolate Bar Ponsonby Pop-Up

    The Chocolate Bar Ponsonby Pop-Up

    I am so excited to announce that The Chocolate Bar is heading to Auckland for a week-long pop-up event.

    This celebration of the world’s finest bean-to-bar chocolate will take place at Ponsonby Central, Shop 4D. As well as a pop-up shop that runs Monday to Sunday, there will be multiple tasting events and talks, collaborations with local food producers and the launch of a brand new chocolate maker, Foundry Chocolate.

     

    the chocolate bar ponsonby pop up

     

    The aim of this event is to help spread the word of the small but emerging craft chocolate industry, and to introduce more Aucklanders to the true potential of fine chocolate. The pop-up shop will feature the largest collection of NZ bean-to-bar chocolate that has ever been in one place, as well as a beautifully curated collection of rare and exclusive bars from the world’s finest chocolate makers.

    From Monday to Thursday there will be ticketed evening tasting sessions, including a coffee and chocolate tasting with Eighthirty Coffee, a tea and chocolate tasting with Fine & Dandy Tea Co., a soda and chocolate tasting with Six Barrel Soda, and a tasting session focussing specifically on NZ Craft Chocolate. There will also be free talks about craft chocolate every lunchtime for the whole week, plus an opportunity to meet Auckland-based chocolate maker Tania Lincoln - aka Flint Chocolate - on the Sunday afternoon.  

    tea chocolate artisan tasting event auckland

    On the Saturday night there will be a tasting premiere of the newest edition to the NZ craft chocolate scene, Foundry Chocolate. This will be an exclusive opportunity to sample Foundry Chocolate’s first four micro-batch, limited edition releases with the chocolate maker himself.

    Tickets to the evening tasting events are available now for $25 each. Spaces are very limited, so be sure to grab yours early if you’re keen.

    artisan coffee chocolate

    Be sure to register your interest on the Facebook event if you’d like to keep up-to-date with all the plans. I can’t wait to come and meet more of our Auckland-based customers in person!

    This event is sponsored by Eighthirty Coffee, Antipodes Sparkling Water, Six Barrel Soda Co. and The Chocolate and Coffee Show.

  • Pear and Caraway Hot Chocolate

    Pear and Caraway Hot Chocolate

    Here's my recipe for pear and caraway hot chocolate. Caraway always reminds me of my mum's healthy cooking, so this recipe is very homely for me. I love the way the pear brings a bright twang to the deep Dominican Republic drinking chocolate.

    Ingredients (serves two)

    300ml oat milk (you can use other types of milk if you like, but oat milk gives the best flavour)

    60g Hogarth Dominican Republic 75% Drinking Chocolate

    1 tsp caraway seeds

    1/2 pear, diced

    Instructions

    1. Wash your pear and chop it in half. Remove the core and then chop into small-ish pieces.

    2. Put the pear, caraway seeds and milk into a saucepan, making sure to put the lid on. Heat the milk until it starts to bubble, then turn onto a very low heat. Keep on the low heat for 45 minutes, stirring every ten minutes or so. 

    3. Remove the pear and caraway seeds from the milk using a sieve. You'll need to pout it into a large bowl, then return the sieved milk to the pan.

    4. Return the milk to the stove and bring it back up to almost-boiling point, then switch to a low heat. 

    5. Add in the drinking chocolate and stir vigorously until it's fully dissolved. When you use real chocolate like this it takes longer to mix together than a cheap hot chocolate powder. You will need to keep it on the heat for a few minutes whilst you stir.

    6. Serve in small cups, with some fresh pear on the side for dipping.

     

    This recipe is designed to be served in small, intense doses. If you'd prefer a larger cup of less intense hot chocolate, simply add a bit more milk.

  • The Chocolate Bar Interview 011: Liz Rowe

    The Chocolate Bar Interview 011: Liz Rowe

    For our latest interview we caught up with Liz Rowe from OCHO Chocolate in Dunedin. Liz was one of the first craft chocolate makers in New Zealand and we've been honoured to sell OCHO since day one of The Chocolate Bar. It's always a pleasure to chat with Liz and it's been inspiring to watch OCHO grow over the past few years.

    In November 2017 OCHO crowdfunded $2,000,000 in less than 48 hours, with the aim of building a new factory and vastly increasing production. We thought this might be a good time to catch up with Liz and find out about some of the changes we can expect to see over the next few years...

    ocho chocolate fiji

    When did you first realise you wanted to become a chocolate maker? 

    To some extent I never really decided, at least not in terms of making a conscious decision. I started experimenting with chocolate making because it looked like fun, I like food, and I like making things, and from there the idea grew of a developing a business out of it. When I started I had to figure a lot of things out for myself, and the chocolate maker side is still a work in progress.

    Why did you decide to only source cacao from the Pacific Islands? 

    When I was starting to think about setting up a craft chocolate business I investigated options for sourcing cacao. There was no NZ supplier at that stage and getting beans from the States (where there were good, established brokers) is very expensive. So I started looking closer to home and the Pacific Islands were the obvious place to start. Finding suppliers wasn’t that easy - I chased up all sorts of leads through some of the NZ and Australian trade agencies, but while everyone knew someone growing beans and getting samples wasn’t impossible, no-one could help me work out what the process was to buy the beans, get them export certified and on to a ship to NZ. Figuring all that out involved a big investment in time and also in money as I ended up going to PNG and to meet with an export company and the farmers. There’s been a big learning curve along the way and a few painful lessons learned.

    cacao cocoa pacific islands papua new guinea

    Are you seeing a lot of development with Pacific Islands cacao? 

    Yes, there’s been huge strides made in the last couple of years. Some countries (eg. PNG, the Solomon Islands) are now running chocolate weeks, which are a way to connect the makers with the growers and help both groups find out what the other side of the equation is all about. For a long time the only beans that US craft makers could access were from PNG and had a reputation for smokiness, but that negative perception is slowly changing. Government agencies and some of the NGOs who work in the Pacific are putting a lot of effort in to working with the farmers to improve practices, and to bringing in chocolate makers to introduce them to Pacific cacao.

    OCHO recently crowdfunded $2,000,000. What kind of changes will we be seeing over the next few years? 

    We’re using that money to fit out a new, bigger factory space and buy a purpose built craft production line. We’ll be able to make a lot more chocolate, though still on a smaller craft scale relative to the industrial producers. The new space is designed so that people can see right inside where we’re making the chocolate as transparency is one of our key principles - we want to demystify the chocolate making process and show people that good chocolate doesn’t have to be complicated.

    ocho chocolate factory dunedin craft chocolate artisan

    With the growth of the businesses, will you be looking for new sources of cacao? If so, how do you find the right people to work with? 

    Yes and no. I always love trying new beans and I’m hoping we’ll re-establish a source from Samoa soon as people really liked the Samoa bar we used to make, but apart from that there’s no other big plans on the horizon. An important consideration is that we like to establish good relationships with our growers, so maintaining a consistent buying policy is important so they can have some confidence that we will continue supporting them. As far as possible we need to keep shipping costs down by bringing in bigger loads from a single port so that’s another important consideration too. 

    Have you seen much change in New Zealand’s craft chocolate scene since you first started the business? 

    When I started there was White Rabbit Cacao in Bannockburn and The Cocoa Press in Wellington. WRC closed a year or so ago and TCP turned into Wellington Chocolate Factory about the time I started. Since then Ola Pacifica and Hogarth's have started, and much more recently Raglan and Flint Chocolate. Another new one Foundry is on the brink of starting and various people seem to be at the stage of playing around with the idea. These changes are representative of what’s happening around the world with craft chocolate with more and more people starting up. It feels a bit like where coffee roasting and craft beer were a few years ago. It’s great to see new people starting because the more craft bean-to-bar makers there are the more the word spreads about the merits of craft chocolate versus industrial chocolate.

    pacific islands cacao cocoa papua new guinea ocho

    What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a craft chocolate maker? 

    Scale is probably the biggest issue. Sometimes I’ve thought it would have been nice to stay small and boutique, but the cost of bringing in beans to NZ has driven me towards needing to be a bit bigger. Staying small is actually quite hard because your costs are high and there’s a limit to what people will pay for a chocolate bar. On the other hand growing requires investment and involves employing staff which has its own set of issues. And then last year’s crowd-funding was a completely unanticipated development and has created a whole new set of opportunities and challenges. I’m now the general manager of OCHO rather than the owner. I have more support, but equally there’s more riding on our success.

    Other than your own, have you tried any particularly delicious chocolate bars recently? 

    I’ve been tempted by some milk chocolates lately, because this is probably the next bar we’ll develop when we’re in the new factory. Of course it’ll still be a dark milk bar but we’ll be able to make our own cocoa butter so milk chocolate is going to be a possibility whereas it hasn’t been so far. I recently tried the Akesson’s 55% dark milk bar, which is deliciously creamy and caramelly, and I’ve long been a fan of Spencer Cocoa’s 42% milk chocolate made with beans from Vanuatu. It’s also caramelly but I get more of the fruity notes that I associate with Pacific Island beans and I suspect he doesn’t use as much cocoa butter as the Akesson’s.

    What is your favourite thing about being a chocolate maker? 

    Chocolate making has opened up a whole new world for me. It’s hard to pinpoint one specific thing about it that’s the best. I’ve loved finding out how the craft chocolate world works and especially meeting the people involved and travelling to the places where the cacao is grown. Of course having good chocolate available on demand is a reasonable bonus too.

    liz rowe ocho chocolate dunedin new zealand artisan

    Thanks so much to Liz for taking the time for this interview, and also for providing us with the photos in this article.

    If you haven't tried OCHO Chocolate yet, we highly recommend their Beekeeper bar as a good place to start.